Somebody said we were allowed to think out loud. Pardon the mess.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Somebody reads this blog--alert the media!

I noticed today that Grant (always a fun read) over at This Blog Sits at has been pondering Coke®. Well, synchronicity lives: me too. Catherine Bowden, writing for London-based Cultural Edge recently stumbled across the jangled mumblings on brain and brand hereabouts and asked for some thought on a recent study done by Neuron, a journal for neuroscience professionals.

Seems the good folk at Baylor School of Medicine were recently looking at why Coke lights up the parts of the brain associated with belonging and identity. The study doesn't seem to be available without a subscription but here's a bit of their summary
For the anonymous task, we report a consistent neural response in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex that correlated with subjects' behavioral preferences for these beverages. In the brand-cued experiment, brand knowledge for one of the drinks had a dramatic influence on expressed behavioral preferences and on the measured brain responses.
Wow. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex. I'm seriously treading water here. The Times of London explains
“Coca-Cola and Pepsi are nearly identical in chemical composition, yet humans routinely display a strong subjective preference for one or another,” Dr McClure said.

“This simple observation raises the important question of how cultural messages combine with content to shape our perceptions, even to the point of modifying behavioural preferences for a primary reward such as a sugared drink.”

In the study, 67 volunteers were asked whether they preferred Pepsi or Coke and then were given a blind taste test while their brains were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging. The technique measures activity in different regions of the brain by charting the flow of blood to particular areas.

The subjects were then scanned again, while their sips were preceded by a picture of either a Coke or Pepsi can flashed on to a screen. This produced a very different set of brain responses. When a Coke can was displayed, it activated other parts of the brain as well. A Pepsi can, however, did not have the same effect.

The results, reported today in the journal Neuron, suggest that Coke’s branding has been so successful that it stimulates a cultural preference in the brain that might sometimes override preferences based solely on taste.

“There are visual images and marketing messages that have insinuated themselves into the nervous system of humans that consume the drinks,” Dr McClure said.
What gives?, Catherine wanted to know and had a few more questions. Here's a bit of what I thought....
...I was only aware of the research as reported in some US and UK dailies and a few trade pubs. It seems to fit in with similar studies I've read.

As to the finding, well, I can't say the Coke result surprises me as much as Pepsi's seeming absolute no-show on the scans. That's really gonna make for some interesting marketing committee and boardroom discussions at Yum brands. (Look for more American flags, Boy Scouts, Lady Libertys and CGI John Waynes in Pepsi's Superbowl spots next year.)

I'm sure Coke would disagree, but, yes, I'd say they're beneficiaries of luck, timing and a happy geographical accident. Some of the earlier 20th century brands that began to aggressively stake a claim in the American Mind using the idealism of "American Spirit" such as Goodyear, Ford or Levis do seem to have had some luck and longevity borne of that connection. In fact, I would be curious to see brands like Goodyear, Ford, NASA, Betty Crocker, The Golden Gate Bridge and NASCAR tested. I'm no neurologist, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them score similar brain responses.

Coke is amongst brands we've used to demonstrate to clients the symbolism of American archetype through brand. Others such as Harley, Disney, Levis, The Ford Mustang, NBA, Elvis, the above mentioned Liberty and John Wayne, Neil Armstrong and a few others add in to the mental collage. It all adds up to an Explorer or Seeker's world-view, which, with the correct framing to align it with particular cultural mores, is pretty universal. In Coke's case, I'd suggest they get the rub-off of having been "simply "American'" when that term was almost unequivocally a *good* thing, free of the current modern-era political baggage. In this way, maybe Coke could be seen as a proxy for the American flag. I'd love to think that that brain-scan rush of synaptic activity was due to the "I'd like to teach the world to sing" mountain-top spot but I'd bet only 20% of the population would know of it, and many perhaps, only from "greatest commercials" shows. I'd say "Coke is it" because it's the official soft-drink of the Hero's Journey--America being the textbook "hero" archetype for the current age.

Americans, perhaps more than Europeans, are kind of like race car drivers. They wear an invisible suit of logos, ideas, history and events that runs the gamut but serves several purposes. It reminds them, to themselves, who they are--at least for the moment--because part of the explorer's archetype-set would be an expectation of change. But change can be unsettling. So, also, that suit, that collage of emotion and imagery can be protection from the sense of feeling unmoored by your searching. As things speed up progress-wise, as the scenery changes faster and faster, certain comfort and pleasure-based images and feelings and their markers--brands--take on a USO-like duty: Postcards from home; reminders of what the search is about. Coke is just part of a patchwork of what it feels like to be an American. And, in the general sense--somewhat more precariously so recently--being American has been, at least superficially, humanity's most sustainably appealing version of "lifestyle." In many ways, "strength in numbers" takes on more salience as choices multiply and markets and cultures splinter. Those "numbers" or teams need uniforms, and so, we're back to the Logo-suit. In a way, that "liberty" imagery and Levis "sensibility" is protection from the multitudes--too many competing claims for our allegiance, too many messages, too many unknown "others." Following the Global view, along with current uncertainty, the recent movie "Team America" at least had a decent title going for it.

In this way, any brand, large or small can take on a symbolic and almost spiritual "guiding" property. The most effective brands park themselves deep in our tribal brain and that has perks. As emblems of ourselves, we are much more willing to forgive their mistakes and transgressions because they are "us." "Nobody's perfect." was invented by the consumers of this imagery. The most successful brands make that leap, often accidentally as I've suggested. (More modern brands like Anthropologie, Body Shop, Starbucks, Virgin and others seem to do it more purposefully, even if they don't necessarily talk publicly about their aim and method.) Those people responding to Coke were being reminded of the "suit" they wear, the team they "belong" to called "America" is the good team, the winning team. Not the perfect team, necessarily, but their team. "Our" team.

Obviously, there are a lot of qualifiers to those last few statements, but in a blind taste test so-to-speak, if one were read a short list of attributes and achievements, cultural and economic environments, of Countries "A", "B" and "C", including America in that mix, you'd probably get an answer that surprised everyone except Americans. Throw the American flag on the "product" and things might divvy up quite differently.

Which brings me to your question on "What has Pepsi done wrong?" I'm ranging farther out here, but perhaps Pepsi's "alternative choice" or "anti-coke" persona is part of it's problem. If soft drinks were political parties, maybe Coke is Republican and Pepsi is Democrats. Coke's equity comes from affirming and reflecting our self-image. In this way, it has the mature position and task of maintaining the status quo. As challenger, Pepsi's task is doubly hard. It must at once offer an alternative identity to the stock persona of Coke's "Real Thing," while not making liars or idiots out of those who adhere to Coke's imagery. But how do you recruit from the competition without bad-mouthing the competition? Not hard, but also not conventional marketing wisdom, and not appealing to balance-sheet cowboys looking for salvation in a few fiscal quarters. Pepsi's solution has always been upstart irreverence, which has value, but Pepsi seldom offers deeper archetypal meaning as to how "Rebel" is an essential part of that Imagery Collage suit we wear. It's there, but it takes more fundamental thinking than they seem willing to commit. As a result, they are often snarky without being sticky, snappy but shallow. If my take on the Cola Wars is correct, Pepsi's success has often owed more to Coke's stumbles due to arrogance or inattention, rather than truly superior human- and consumer insight on Pepsi's part. Coke, like America, is an aging hero, currently lost for a new mission of meaning. Perhaps both could be said to be resisting the passage of time, denying their movement into responsible Adulthood. (Relative to Britain or, say, Twinings, both are youngsters, yes?) Both are reactive right now, relying more on resume than forward, expansive thinking. Coke is an Alpha-brand, Pepsi is a Beta. Where's the gamma? Given America's racial and cultural momentum, Pepsi's ultimate long-term relevance, and therefore, her success comes in aligning with the current and coming shifts in American Identity rather than simply pinging off Coke's lock on a later-mature Hero archetype. "What's next for 'America'?" is the same as "What's next for Pepsi?" Tick-tock.

(As I mentioned, your list of questions is a long one and very interesting. I'll do my best to keep it short, but please feel free to ask for more specifics if you don't get them in this message. One of my partners works with color psychology and tells me that "red," is a more highly stimulating color, it evokes passion, it makes you salivate. )

Wow, I've written this much and still haven't gotten to "neuro-marketing" specifically (must be Freudian.) Catherine, I'm not a neuro-marketer per se, just a Creative Director who tries to wrangle with the frameworks that people use to decide whether or not to join a thing, spend a resource or exert effort for a cause or a company. That experience has taught me that people often don't know why they do many things and, when asked in standard ways, they will take you on some very wild goose chases. Therefore, my job is to use as many tools as possible to understand a person and their aims and desires because they often don't even know themselves. As they say in military intelligence, "overlay." In other words, compare patterns from as many different data-points and regimes as possible and look for the patterns. Similarly, a rule for getting the truth is to not let malice or greed, pressure or ideology intervene on your assimilation of that information. But judgement and decision making require, well, judgements. Money and science are two areas that don't particularly adhere well to admonitions about ethical considerations. "First, do no harm" works fairly well in medicine, but who defines "harm" when you're using a scientfic tool to get votes or move blue jeans?   

Your list of neuro questions included: What do you think about the emergence of 'neuro-marketing' as a method of market research? Is it fundamentally different in nature to other forms of consumer research? Should people worry that they will somehow be 'manipulated' into buying or preferring a certain brand?

I think neuro-marketing can probably help more truly identify what people respond to when the truth is perhaps not politically correct or particularly encouraging to the person doing the asking or researching a true understanding of how things are. But I'm battle-scarred enough to know that "truth", unvarnished and pure, often goes against the grain of the far more powerful "perception" or "will." The truth wasn't absent for players like Enron or Coca Cola in their debacles. They simply chose not to hear. A brain scan wouldn't have helped them because tribal mythology--especially when driven awry by pride or fear--refuses all countermanding facts, neural or otherwise. So, my prediction: You'll hear a few benign successes attributed to neuro-marketing followed by the usual ethical overreaches from any new technology. We've reached a new peak. Peaks have slopes. Here comes "slippery".  

I found it amusing to read where the Baylor researcher [Dr McClure] said  “We are not trying to figure out how to market something better.... We want to be able to better understand how brains work so that we can hopefully cure more neurological disorders.”

Uh huh. Let's be honest. Alexander Graham Bell wasn't trying to invent obscene phone calls or a telemarketing industry either, was he? Technology finds a way, money looks for leverage, and neuro-marketing is just that in the eyes of marketers. Another "tool" in the box. But, as they say also in the intelligence business: "Sometimes you use the tool, sometimes the tool uses you." Allowed to view it as merely "a tool," *any* organization is freed from the expectation that it comes with a "Moral User's Manual." If neuro-marketing does pick the lock of motivational psychology and renders it plug-and-play, well, when you make something so accessible it's idiot-proof expect idiots, and worse, to use it. And don't be surprised at the mess.

I hope this gave you something to work with. If you need clarification feel free to ask
Hey, it's me writing. Of course it needed clarification....
You talk a lot about why American people identify with Coke as an all-American symbol. How can you account for its global success? Is this kind of American image something that people all around the world are attracted by? Or do they just see the bold, white-on-red logo and start salivating?

Not sure if you caught this bit before...I'll add some emphasis
Coke is amongst brands we've used to demonstrate to clients the symbolism of American archetype through brand. Others such as Harley, Disney, Levis, The Ford Mustang, NBA, Elvis, the above mentioned Liberty and John Wayne, Neil Armstrong and a few others add in to the mental collage. It all adds up to an Explorer or Seeker's world-view, which, with the correct framing to align it with particular cultural mores, is pretty universal. In Coke's case, I'd suggest they get the rub-off of having been "simply "American" when that term was almost unequivocally a *good* thing.... I'd say "Coke is it" because it's the official soft-drink of the Hero's Journey--America being the textbook "hero" archetype for the current age.
Coke is part of the heroic mental and emotional collage that is "America!™", and it's symbolic and inspiring to more than just Americans. (Perhaps even more so for many non-Americans because practical reality or cognitive dissonance doesn't interfere with the idealized view.) In metaphorical terms, Coke was many foreigners' first taste of "America." And they liked it. And you know what they say about first impressions...

A cursory reading of myth and archetype scholars like Joseph Campbell and others tells us that "the Hero's journey" is a human fundamental with universal cultural appeal through the ages. While Coke may not have had their logo on the side of Apollo 11, for many around the globe, it was perhaps the only available, tangible and consumable icon of the "strange place called 'America' where they do amazing things." That's what I meant about Coke's logo almost being a proxy for the American flag. Coke's marketing around the world, with it's cooperative advertising and free signage to businesses who stocked their product meant they were ubiquitous far earlier than a McDonalds or Sony. When people in Soweto or Srebrenica heard of Martin Luther King speaking to throngs on the Mall about freedom and equality, their immediate knowledge of things American was, well, the sweet soft drink with the red and white logo. It was bold, it was pleasurable, it was everywhere -- "must come from a good place" goes the brain imprint. From a personality-standpoint, there aren't many humans who would mind having the concepts of boldness, pleasurability and ubiquity used to describe them. Add in the fact that it's a reasonably inexpensive product you can share with friends and family and you have a package of powerful ideals. The Red color and the swooshy graphic contributed to Coke's success, no doubt. (Hard to counterfeit, easy to police, uniquely and immediately identifiable.) Still, in a narrative sense, Coke equals American confidence and "can-do"; about not getting all caught up in our knickers but, instead, charging ahead, enjoying life and feeling good, even if just for a moment. Coke is America, America is Coke.

Hope this helps!
Phew. Seems lately I write all my epics offline or on other people's blogs. Pardon my litter and thanks for reading.
On Canadian and American. On Gravity and Boxes. On Dynamism.

Grant, from This Blog Sits At The, wonders after the wiliness and stance of two cultures
I have been thinking recently about the difference between Canada and the U.S., and especially their relative dynamism.

It’s as if the imagined Canadian center of gravity is lower. They like a low center of gravity because they believe it protects them from dynamism. It makes them, they suppose, less tippy. The wind may blow, the earth may quake, but this little house will stand. Having a low center of gravity puts them on good terms with stasis. Movement is expensive (in energy/effort) to achieve, and once you get going, the momentum effect can be formidable. You never know where you’re going to end up.

If, on the other hand, you have a high center of gravity, as I am beginning to think many Americans do, movement is the place of safety. This is because, to roll out the metaphor, the mechanics of motion allow the individual to correct against small perturbations that might become larger stability-threatening perturbations. Motion allows Americans to work perturbations out in transit. Canadians huddle, the better to make themselves, as an Elizabethan might say, “unconcussable.” With a low center of gravity, they are confident that small perturbations will not start or that they’ll “bounce off.” Americans accept perturbations as inevitable, and they keep the center of gravity high, the better to “work them out.”
Okay. I'll take your C/G metapahor and raise you: Box or Frame? A box offers shelter and anonymity, but the wind can blow over your box. What was once an opening at the top or sides is now your floor -- you're trapped. If that opening is at the top, a certain access or "ability" is required to jump in or make your way around to the opening (Only tall people may climb in; only people who live on the west side, where the opening may be pointed can get in.) And you're in or you're out, no two ways. A box is a box--it is complete. Any efforts to flex or torque its dimensions render it weaker, buckled, crumpled--a once proud box rent asunder.

Now, a framework: More flexy, more aerodynamically pure, it can withstand the wind but offers less simple protection. Or rather, it offers a different kid of protection with a higher threshhold of sturdiness demanded of its occupants. Why? Because a framework is what you latch onto during those high winds. Its stability is there to use, and far beyond that which a box would offer. Knock it over, roll it to and fro, hither and yon, and it is still a frame--you can pass through, or latch on. But it requires a certain understanding of its advantages and demands, otherwise your frame begins to appear dowdy--or dangerous.

Dowdy, because you want to dress the place up, make it feel more like home, more permanent. So you put up walls to hang pictures on. Maybe a porch would be nice too, so you point your frame toward a view you like and build the porch facing that way. Nice view. Such a nice view. We wouldn't want to lose it or not be able to enjoy it on windy days. So you build a roof. And a foundation. Dangerous.

I like Grant's analogy, but I'm not sure it isn't about 10-15 years out of date. America *was* indeed founded on unprecedented mobility and free will and that fact's appeal guaranteed it's gene pool. Currently though, there are some recessive genes slapping up siding, insisting on porches and doing everything possible to deny that Punctuated Equilibrium is attempting a strong peak. They've had enough of the kind of "windy" our Framers thought so much of. They're tired. They think the future doesn't want them. They may be right. Call it Frame-fatigue.

[edited from original in Grant's comments]

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